The Theatrical Syndicate was an organization that controlled the booking of the top theatrical attractions in the United States, starting in 1896. The organization was composed of six men, each of whom controlled theatres and bookings.
Early in 1896, six men gathered for lunch at the Holland House in New York City. These men were Charles Frohman, Al Hayman, A. L. Erlanger, Marc Klaw, Samuel F. Nirdlinger, and Frederick Zimmerman. All were theatrical managers and/or booking agents with influence throughout the country. Frohman and Hayman owned theatres in New York and the surrounding area, Erlanger and Klaw were booking agents for almost all the major theatres in the South, and Nirdlinger and Zimmerman controlled theatres in the Ohio region. Frohman also owned a chain of theatres extending to the West Coast. At lunch, the men discussed the disarray in American theatre. These men had essentially formed the outline of the Theatrical Syndicate. In order for the Syndicate to succeed, it needed to form a monopoly. Within weeks of their lunch meeting, the men organized all the theatres which they owned or represented into a national chain, marking the beginning of the Theatrical Syndicate.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, theatre companies in America thrived by touring. In order to take control of the situation, the Syndicate needed only to possess key theatres between the major touring cities. In order to take control of a city, the Syndicate did not need control of theatres within the city. It needed only to control theatres on the routes approaching the city. The first city to be completely overtaken by the Syndicate was Philadelphia because of the influence of Nixon and Zimmerman.
At the start, 33 first-class theatres were owned by the Syndicate. Frohman, Klaw and Erlanger became the booking agents for the whole organization. Company managers no longer organized their tours by dealing with individual theatre managers. Instead they had to go through the Syndicate, which would arrange their tour for them.
The Syndicate was praised among certain circles. Daniel Frohman, the brother of Charles Frohman, gives an account of the creation of the Syndicate. He writes that after discussing the growing chaos in the business of theatre, "they decided that its only economic hope was in a centralization of booking interests, and they acted immediately on this decision." Those who praised the Syndicate believed that they had saved theatre by standardizing bookings. In the time prior to the formation of the Syndicate, routing of road-based companies was described as chaotic. Smaller travelling companies would find themselves in massive amounts of debt because of stiff competition. Klaw, who acted as the spokesman for the Syndicate, was quoted as saying, "The Theatrical Syndicate has brought order out of chaos, legitimate profit out of ruinous rivalry."
Criticism and opposition to the Syndicate came from managers, agents, and actors alike. At first, it was the managers that attempted to put a stop to the Syndicate, but they failed almost as soon as they began. A more serious threat to the Syndicate came in the form of rebellion from actors. The most prominent actors to take a stand were Nat Goodwin, Francis Wilson, and Richard Mansfield. Others who took a stand against the Syndicate were James A. Herne, James O'Neill. One actress, Minnie Maddern Fiske, became very well known for her opposition of the Syndicate. She became famous for her roles in plays by Ibsen, Shaw, and Wilde. The voices of the actors were much louder than any previous opposition. However, the fight was a very short one as Nat Goodwin, the original leader of the rebellion, was "captured" by the Syndicate. The others agreed to the Syndicate's terms very soon after.
The only real threat to the Syndicate came in the form of the Shubert brothers, Sam, Lee, and J.J. In the building stages of their empire, Sam Shubert was seen as the "leader." At the age of twenty one, Sam controlled theatres in Utica, Rochester, Syracuse, New York City, and Troy. In the next five years, he would obtain many more all over the country. At this point, his holdings were only surpassed by Syndicate itself. However, Sam died in a railroad accident in 1905. After his death, his brothers formed a very brief working agreement with the Syndicate. After 3 years of solidifying their holdings, the Shuberts were strong enough to go toe to toe with the Syndicate. At first, the Shuberts operated in a very similar manner to the Syndicate. They dealt with theatrical managers and were able to book a year's tour for the manager, but any length of time after that became unprofitable. The Shubert brothers then changed tactics. They abandoned the tactic of buying theatres. Instead, they focused on collecting actors. During the 1908-09 season, the Syndicate did not have enough actors or plays to fill all of their theatres. The Shubert brothers took advantage of this by following the Syndicate to certain cities and performing similar works in the same city, but of a better quality.
The Fall of the Syndicate
Early in 1910, several prominent actors and playwrights defected from the Syndicate to the Shuberts. The fight of the Shubert brothers gave smaller independent theatres the motivation to take a stand against the Syndicate, and by April, the New England area had completely declared independence from the Syndicate. In May of that year, 1,200 small town theatre owners joined together to form the National Theatre Owners Association. This act helped to end the Syndicate's hold on American theatre.
- Marcosson, Isaac Frederick and Frohman, Daniel."Birth of the Syndicate" Charles Frohman: manager and man, Harper & Brothers (the University of Michigan) (1916), Google eBook (Digitized March 4, 2008), pp. 186-187
- McArthur, Benjamin."Artists and Artisans" Actors and American culture, 1880-1920 (2000), University of Iowa Press, ISBN 0-87745-710-7, p. 214
- Turney, Wayne S., n.d. "The Theatrical Syndicate." Wayne S. Turney. Web. 17 Jan 2011. http://wayneturney.20m.com/syndicate.htm
- Hodin, Mark. "The Disavowal of Ethnicity: Legitimate Theatre and the Social Construction of Literary Value in Turn-of-the-Century America." Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000): 211-226. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.
- "Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865–1932)" Women Working, Harvard University, accessed December 2, 2011
- "H. W. Savage Out of the Syndicate"The New York Times, July 13, 1910